Comparative Book Reviews
IVP, 2006, 221 pages, $16
Review # 1: by Jeremy Yong
Yes! When I found out about Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, I had to get it. I was raised in and converted through the influence of a Chinese Baptist church in Southern California. Yet ever since my own calling into the ministry, I have had very few opportunities to formally think through the many questions that surface in the type of multi-cultural church that characterized these earlier years.
- How can we promote unity in body when we speak different languages?
- Can the Mandarin congregation, the Cantonese congregation, and the English congregation function as one church?
- How can bonds be strengthened between the elders of all three congregations?
- Why has the second generation left the church and how should we think about that biblically?
These are the kinds of questions that Chinese and other ethnic churches face, which is why any contribution to the conversation is welcome.
The editors of this volume had a difficult task: to encourage Asian American churches across a number of denominations towards greater health. At the same time, most of the contributors are open to questioning whether an "Asian American church" is even a valid category. Whether it is or not, they push Asian American churches to consider how to adapt to the growing multi-ethnicity of our churches today.
Building on the biblical image of the household of God (Eph 2:19; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5), Asian American Churches tell stories of various congregations and their efforts to become healthy. The key to health, say editors Cha and Lee, is helping "our congregations beliefs and actions mirror one another" (13). Most congregations lack agreement between their two operating theologiestheir explicit theology (proclaimed faith) and their implicit theology (practiced faith). In fact, "recent studies"which are never citedshow that a congregations implicit theology exerts greater influence in shaping its members than its explicit theology. But "when our churches are orthodox and engage in orthopraxis our churches will continue to grow as healthy households of God" (13).
In order to help a churchs two operating theologies mirror one another, the contributors offer eight implicit "biblically informed values" that they believe will bring health. And the books nine chapters each address these eight biblically informed values. The first chapter emphasizes grace. The second chapter emphasizes truth. The third and fourth emphasize leadership. The fifth trust. The sixth hospitality and evangelism. The seventh multigenerations. The eighth gender relations. And the ninth justice and mercy.
Along the way, the ten contributors to this book (from different denominations) seek to answer the following questions: What does a healthy Asian American household of God look like? What traits and qualities should characterize such a congregation? How does a congregation become a healthy household of God?
As a whole, Asian American Churches has a number of strengths. First, the contributors demonstrate a genuine desire to see Asian American churches strengthened. Its evident they have spent much time and energy laboring in their congregations and communities so that people would come to know Jesus Christ.
Second, the book touches on the main issues Asian American churches face such as the influence of shame-based cultures, Confucianism, and intergenerational fellowship. And, third, they do so in a very practical way leaving the reader with examples to follow. Peter Cha asks the following practical questions:
- "Does your church sponsor intergenerational activities?"
- "Does your church have distinct separate cultures that promote further segregation among different people groups in your church?"
- "Do you approach and work out generational conflicts with an attitude of humility and servanthood of our Lord Jesus?"
Another great challenge comes from Steve Kang: "Healthy Asian American churches must continually ask themselves whether they have intentionally allowed the Word of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to shape the identity, life and trajectory of the truth-embodying community" (48).
Without doubt, this book will challenge many Asian Americans in ministry and help them think more critically about how they "do church." It will, I hope, generate additional constructive conversation that will lead to the vibrant health of all Asian American churches. I am happy to recommend it because of its insights into the dynamics of immigrant churches, especially Asian American churches.
However, my recommendation comes with a few caveats. While I certainly agree our beliefs and our actions need to mirror one another, as do our explicit and implicit theology, I fear that by beginning with implicit theology they approach the problem backwards. It may be that "most congregations fail to experience such an agreement between their operating theologies," but isnt that because they dont realize that action is supposed to flow from doctrine? More specifically, could it be that these churches dont know what they believe about the gospel of Jesus Christ? He is, after all, the cornerstone.
Since doctrine must birth action, people must first know who God is and what he desires of them before adequately addressing the how-tos of church. Second Peter 1 makes this clear. God has given his children "everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him" (v. 3). Therefore, we are to "make every effort" to pursue holiness (v. 5). We see the same thing in Titus 3. Paul tells Titus and the churches in Crete to "devote themselves to doing what is good" (v. 8), and to do so because of several propositional truths: God our Savior has appeared (v. 4); he has granted salvation through the rebirth and renewal by the Spirit poured out through Jesus Christ our Savior (vv. 5-6); and now we have "the hope of eternal life" (v. 7). The churchs doctrine gives birth to the churchs action.
Another caveat: The book uses several misleading examples. In the first chapter, the contributor describes a minister who commits adultery and is divorced by his wife. The author then describes how this pastor was "hurt and angry" because of the churchs misuse of discipline with him. Yet the author mentions nothing about how church discipline can be an act of love within a body, potentially leaving some readers believing that all church-discipline is hurtful.
Another misleading example comes from Soong-Chan Ras chapter on mercy and justice. He calls the church to confront "systemic injustice." Then he names several examples like "the enslavement of Africans, the genocide of the Native Americans and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2" (197). Then, three lines down on the page, he speaks of the "racist attitudes" of LifeWay Christian Resources (of the Southern Baptist Convention) and their 2004 Vacation Bible School curriculum "Rickshaw Rally: Far Out, Far East."
Huh? How can he mention the enslavement of Africans and LifeWay Christian Resources in the very same breath? Call LifeWay what you want, but is not comparing chattel slavery with the blunders of LifeWay an injustice itself?
With these caveats, I am happy to recommend the book. Perhaps more could be said than what was said in this book. Nonetheless it makes a helpful contribution to the larger conversation. If you have been thinking about issues facing the Asian American church (or any multi cultural/generational/lingual church), pick it up. You will find good examples of how some brothers and sisters are working to present their congregations mature in Christ.
Jeremy Yong is an elder at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and an master of divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Review # 2: by Geoffrey Chang
The dilemma for ethnic churches is a familiar one.
Immigrants move to a foreign country in search of opportunities. They are drawn to other immigrants who share the same language and culture, and plant churches together so that they can worship in their native tongue, and raise their families in these churches. The difficulty begins with the next generation. Their children begin losing the traditional culture, replacing it with the local culture. The ethnic church continues to provide a familiar community for new immigrants, but it becomes decreasingly relevant for each passing generation.
How will the church deal with these two increasingly different groups under one roof? How can the church ensure that it is built on biblical truth, rather than a particular culture? How does an ethnic church fit into the bigger picture of what God is doing? These and many other difficulties face Asian American churches today.
Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, edited by Peter Cha, S. Steve Kang, and Helen Lee, attempts to address these challenges by discussing "the theme of developing healthy Asian American congregations, exploring both what we are becoming and what we are called to do, our identity as well as our mission" (13). This book advocates eight values that should characterize healthy Asian American congregationsor "households" (13)and enable them to overcome the challenges facing ethnic churches:
1. Grace-filled households Asian American churches should be built on the grace that we have received from our relationship with Christ, rather than "a methodology to be imposed on a church" (31). "Grace-based ministry is our service to God based on our experience of his generosity to us" (25).
2. Truth-embodying households Asian American churches should be "the earthly embodiment of the risen Christ, the truth-embodying community in time and space" (45). This truth is not merely "a set of esoteric propositions" (47), but rather is found in a relationship with Christ.
3. Healthy leaders, healthy households Healthy households will not exist apart from healthy leaders. Rather than looking to their culture, they must look to the Bible, which "provides numerous examples of timeless leadership principles that apply regardless of cultural setting" (67).
4. Trusting households: Openness to change As difficult as change may be, healthy households will embrace change by "[trusting] in God and what God is doing in their churches" (109).
5. Hospitable households: Evangelism In this postmodern age, healthy households must "think of evangelism not as a program but as a way of life that proclaims the good news to those who have open hearts, souls and minds" (124).
6. Multigenerational households Given the intergenerational conflict that is so prevalent in ethnic churches, "developing intergenerational ties is a critical task for Asian congregations in North America" (148).
7. Gender relations in healthy households Harmful views of gender exist in Asian culture. Yet a healthy church will provide "a sociocultural and spiritual environment in which its members can form healthy
[and] safely explore and develop all of the gifts that the Holy Spirit has sovereignly given to them" (165).
8. Households of mercy and justice Healthy churches understand that evangelism is not simply "individual salvation but
the expression of Gods kingdom values into the world" (191), particularly through mercy ministries and social justice.
The challenges facing Asian American churches have to do with both traditional Asian culture, as well as contemporary American culture, and these eight values attempt to get at the root of these challenges by applying eternal biblical truths. As can be seen from the eight values, there is much that can be commended in this book. Two points stand out in particular:
First, Asian American Churches provides helpful insights into the East Asian culture and how its influences affect the church. In discussing leadership in the Asian church, for instance, the book highlights the Asian tendencies towards authoritarian hierarchy, false humility, saving face, and conflict avoidance as hindrances to healthy leadership and as "contradictory to Christian teaching" (61).
Similarly, the constant drive in Asian culture for achievement and even perfection in education and work often contradicts the grace of God. This ambition must "be supplanted by the freedom of knowing that God loves us unconditionally" (33, 68).
One of the most helpful insights is the function of the Asian church as a cultural center. For example, in less than a century, over 4,000 Korean churches have been planted, and yet "the growth in the number of these churches has little to do with any targeted evangelistic effort" (124). Rather, its because the church has become a place for both "spiritual support and relational support
the overriding institution that helped Koreans maintain their own cultural identity" (124). Clearly, Asian American churches are heavily influenced by Asian values, and they must wrestle with the effect of these influences on their faith.
More than Pragmatism
Second, Asian American Churches provides a vision for healthy churches that goes beyond pragmatism and numerical church growth. Unlike many contemporary books on the church, it emphasizes the spiritual and relational aspects of a healthy church, while exploring the outward responsibility of the church to the community and the world. Asian American Churches criticizes leaders who would "unreflectively borrow from either successful megachurches or notable mainstream Christian thinkers who advocate some sort of one-size-fits-all teaching." Instead, Asian American pastors are to "struggle to understand the particular place and role the Asian American church is called to fulfill in Gods kingdom" (49).
When it comes to evangelism, Christians must be careful to depend on the Holy Spirit through prayer (131). Moreover, "the road to effective evangelism is not merely measured by yearly conversions." Rather, churches must "focus more on the process and journey of coming to Christ than on a singular moment of decision to accept Christ" (144).
Asian American Churchess emphasis on the need for social engagement is particularly commendable. If churches are to be faithful, "they must have a public witness and not merely exist for the sake of maintaining their own households" (185). One way this is fulfilled is in its active participation in "ministries of justice and mercy" (186). Asian American Churches does not see church health simply as new programs or bigger buildings, but recognizes the importance of spiritual growth and social engagement.
Although there are many helpful insights in this book, it ultimately falls short as a biblical guide for Asian American churches due to several key weaknesses.
Lack of Clarity on the Gospel, Conversion, and Evangelism
First, there is a lack of clarity about the message of the gospel. The book defines grace as "the outrageous generosity of God" (21), but strangely, it never gives a clear description of what this generosity looks like or how it is conveyed to us (i.e. through the gospel). The closest thing to an explanation of the gospel in the book is this: "[Gods generosity] is given at the expense of his justice. There was a cost to Gods generosity, and it was paid by Jesus death on the cross" (22). Aside from the fact that Gods grace is not given at the expense of his justice, but through the satisfaction of it, there is no clear articulation of Gods perfect holiness, our utter sinfulness, Gods wrath against sin, Christs substitutionary sacrifice, or the free offer of salvation by faith in Christ alone. Granted, this book is not meant to be a systematic theology on the atonement. But if grace is to be the foundation of all the churchs activities, it cannot be depicted vaguely or abstractly, but must be shown forth in all its historical reality and theological glory in the gospel. Clearly and continuously proclaiming the gospel is particularly critical in Asian American churches, which, as Asian American Churches rightly points out, are often more "Asian" than "Christian" (124).
This lack of clarity about the gospel will result in other errors in the ministry of the church. One example of this is a misunderstanding of conversion. Without a clear gospel message, conversion is seen not so much as a spiritual transformation resulting in repentance and faith in Christ, but rather it is a gradual movement toward Christian values from Christian relationships. "As one enters this household the value system of that household begins to influence the individual" (191). One contributor writes, "healthy Asian American churches are
not as focused on immediate conversions but on bringing each of their members and attendees to a closer relationship with Christ and with one another" (131). Yet Scripture clearly teaches that apart from a spiritual (or "immediate") conversion, there is no relationship with Christ or with his body.
This misunderstanding of conversion has a huge impact on the churchs evangelism. Evangelism no longer focuses on the proclamation of the gospel, but is primarily about building relationships with people. Therefore, being sensitive to different worldviews, being transparent and vulnerable, raking yards, meeting felt needs, and rearranging worship services are all different ways the church evangelizes. Now, these are not bad things and often can be useful in evangelism. But without a clear proclamation of the gospel, there can be no salvation. If churches tragically misunderstand the task of evangelism and fail to communicate the message of the gospel, they might develop friendships, but their pews will be filled with lost and unconverted people.
Disconnect from the Rest of Christianity
A second weakness is disconnectedness from the rest of Christianity. Sadly, Asian culture has had a history of isolationism, and this is often repeated in how Asian American churches are disconnected from other churches, and from the historical roots of the church. An obvious example of this is Asian American Churchess focus only on contemporary Asian American churches as examples for healthy churches. This is understandable given the audience of this book. But for churches that wish to fight harmful cultural influences, the book would have benefited by studying churches in different cultures in order to learn from their strengths.
Along these same lines, the book also fails to call Asian American churches to a deeper grasp of its historical roots. Since Asian American churches are a relatively young church in America, the only history in which they have participated is the "American fundamentalist Christian culture that nurtured many of the Asian American churches in the first half of the twentieth century
[and] the American church-growth movement of the 1970s to the present" (33). These two movements in particular have had significant influence in Asian American churches. In church history, however, we see a much wider picture. There is so much in church history that would serve the Asian American context well: the persecution and boldness of the Reformers, the history of missions to East Asia, the perseverance of early Christians in house churches, the challenge of nominal Christianity under the state church, the pursuit of truth through careful study and discussion in historical councils, the migration of the Puritans to the New World, and countless other accounts of Gods faithfulness. By connecting Asian American churches to the stream of Gods work throughout church history, they would gain greater balance, humility, and wisdom in responding to the trends and movements of our day and fulfilling their unique role in redemptive history.
Finally, Asian American Churches fails to provide an adequate ecclesiology for Asian American churches. There is never a clear definition in this book of what the local church is. In one place, a contributor writes, "the church can be described as the space and time where Gods chosen people affirm their new life in Jesus Christ through worship, instruction, fellowship and expression" (44). Here it would seem that the local church is the setting where Gods people gather. Elsewhere, the book states, "Church is a hospital room where a distressed mother and child have no one to turn to but their church family. Church is a home where discord and stress have brought a family to its breaking point" (184). Here, the definition of the church is based on the ministry of the church to care for the needy.
Without a clear definition of the local church, the readers are either left to wonder exactly what the church is, or to fill in their own understanding of the church. Yet we see in Scripture that the church (ecclesia) is ultimately not a setting or certain ministries, but a congregation, an assembly of people who have been called by God, saved in Christ, and transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Without a biblical definition of the local church, all other aspects of ecclesiology in this book suffer. We see this deficiency in the area of church membership, where churches are encouraged to incorporate unbelievers into their "household" as part of their evangelism. We see it in the area of church discipline, where a pastor allows a couple to join the church, even while they are living together unmarried (36) or where leaders have no idea how to lovingly discipline an elder or pastor caught in immorality. We see it in the area of church leadership, where there is no clear understanding of the roles of elders or deacons or the congregation. These are all areas in which Asian American churches are very weak, and yet are extremely important to the health of the church.
As right as Asian American Churches is in pointing out the dangers for the church of the Asian tendency to authoritarian hierarchy, avoiding conflict resolution, saving face, etc., it fails to provide a biblical and practical ecclesiology that can counteract these influences and act as a guide for the church.
Asian American Churches is one of the first books of its kind, written specifically about the Asian American church and its challenges. It provides many helpful insights into the Asian culture and how it affects the identity and ministry of the Asian American church. However, because of its failure to articulate the gospel clearly, connect Asian American churches to other churches, and integrate a biblical ecclesiology, Asian American Churches fails to be a sufficient guide for Asian American churches. Nonetheless, my hope is that this book is the beginning of a fruitful conversation among Asian American leaders on what the Bible has to say about growing healthy Asian American churches.
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